G&F Forecast: Virginia Turkey Hunting in 2013
February 15, 2013
On the first day of the 2012 Virginia spring season, I journeyed to the Franklin County farm where I have gone afield the past four openers and where I will likely be this April 13 when the season begins. In the darkness, I made my way to the top of a Virginia-pine covered ridge, hoping to hear toms somewhere below me or perhaps in some pines that form the perimeter of a wheat field that adjoins the ridge. I also had an ear cocked toward a pine flat some 300 yards behind me.
But when dawn broke, I heard no birds sound off behind or below me. I did detect three longbeards gobbling several hundred yards beyond the field below. I quickly ran toward those birds, but no more gobbles were forthcoming from the trio — or for that matter any other tom turkey on the property. At noon, I headed glumly for my Botetourt County home.
Over the next fortnight, I hunted every morning in Botetourt, even going during a moderate rain before I headed to the school where I teach. But I never was able to call in any gobblers, and I was similarly never able to forget about those three opening morning Franklin dandies.
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So on Friday, April 27, I called the Franklin County landowner and asked him two questions. Had anyone killed any of the opening morning trio, and had anyone hunted that spot since I had been there? The gentleman's answer to both questions was no and then he invited me to return on Saturday for another go-round with his birds.
So it was on the third Saturday of our season, I was standing on the same ridge where I had waited for rosy-fingered dawn on opening day. This time the only sounds that greeted me came from crows and songbirds. Extremely frustrated, I left for a three-hour jaunt across the far reaches of the Franklin farm, never hearing a tom and blundering across several hens.
Then at 9:30, I decided to make three assumptions: that the gobbler trio was still in the same woodlot, that they were likely henned up, and that if I came to the logging road that runs through the woodlot and called softly every 15 minutes or so, I would have a better chance of success than if I continued my random roaming.
By 9:45, I was sitting against a massive red oak that lies 20 yards off the old tote road and that offers a good view up and down the byway and that also lies within 60 yards of the wheat field — should any longbeard decide to go there to strut. I emitted several soft hen clucks with a slate, yelped lightly with a diaphragm, and rested my Remington 12 gauge autoloader across my knees.
At 10:00 a.m., I repeated the call sequence and five minutes later, I heard two distant hen clucks. I clucked once in response and at 10:10 she appeared and gave a "where are you cluck," which I responded to with a barely audible (to me) cluck. Seemingly satisfied, she continued down the road — and then I saw him. He was clearly an overgrown tom and just as clearly had his eyes locked on the hen.
When the old boy's head moved behind an oak just off the logging road, I mounted the autoloader and when the tom came around the other side, I was left with an exceptionally easy 25-yard shot. The gobbler was my biggest ever Virginia bird in terms of weight (21 pounds, 4 1/2 ounces) and also had a 9 3/4-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.
The shot also ended my spring season, as I had killed two fall birds. Hunters can kill only three turkeys per license year: three bearded birds may be killed in the spring provided none were killed in the fall. Hunters can also kill one fall turkey of either sex and two spring bearded birds. This spring, Youth Day is April 6, all day hunting begins on May 6, and the season runs through May 18.
QUICK LOOK BACK
Gary Norman, wild turkey project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) reports that the state's turkey population has averaged an annual 1.2 percent decline over the last decade, meaning that the harvest has been fairly stable. There comes a point in any state's turkey harvest where a leveling off occurs, and we apparently have arrived at that stage, at least on a statewide basis.
Currently, Norman notes that the highest turkey numbers on average exist in the South Piedmont and Tidewater regions, which makes sense when we examine the 2012 harvest figures.
Statewide, the harvest was 15,326 turkeys, just 2 percent lower than the 2011 tally of 15,698. East of the Blue Ridge (EBR), the harvest actually rose 1 percent, inching up to 10,527 from 10,429. But West of the Blue Ridge (WBR) the tally plunged 9 percent to 4,799 from 5,265. Anecdotally, most of the WBR sportsmen that contacted me reported seeing fewer turkeys. Anecdotally, though I live in Botetourt and have permission to hunt many farms in that county as well as in Craig and Roanoke counties, when Saturday comes and I have all day to hunt, I head EBR to Franklin.
These regional differences also can be seen in the long-term trend results over the past 10 years. EBR sees a kill per square mile figure of 0.63, an uptick of 5.6 percent over the past decade. WBR sees a kill per square mile figure of 0.59, a decline of 5.0 percent during that same time. Although there are counties WBR that are showing gains and counties EBR showing declines, the counties with the most impressive turkey numbers are overwhelming in the eastern reaches of the Commonwealth.
A LOOK AHEAD
The kill per square mile figures can give real insight on which counties state sportsmen should strive to gain access to private land for this spring. For example, Virginia features 16 counties that have attained Tier 4 status, basically meaning that have a kill per square mile figure of 0.90 or greater. The only mountain county among them is Grayson (1.00). Some of these counties, and they are eastern domains, boast simply incredible kill rates: Westmoreland (2.0), Richmond (1.90), Northumberland (1.43), Lancaster (1.37), and Surry (1.36). If you have friends or relatives who own rural land in these counties, or if you are inclined to knock on doors, I would certainly be looking to gain permission to hunt in one of those counties.
Conversely, some of the counties have low percentages and some simply abysmal ones, and these are considered Tier 1 counties. For example, I have several friends who live and hunt in Alleghany County and they constantly bemoan the lack of turkeys. The domain's kill per square mile figure of 0.37 suggests that my buddies have a legitimate reason to grumble. I turned down two offers to turkey hunt in Alleghany County last year.
Other Tier 1 counties and their figures include such western counties as Highland (0.24), Bath (0.26), Buchanan (0.39), and Augusta (0.41). Folks hunting on public or private land in those counties this spring could find mature toms scarce. To be fair to the WBR domains, some EBR counties also have low numbers of turkeys. For instance, York (0.24) and Prince William (0.33) seemed to have missed out on the turkey boom occurring in much of the region, which leads to another point.
Turkey reproduction is a local phenomenon, not only on a county by county basis but also on even a rural parcel by rural parcel basis. Some parcels traditionally contain birds, some only in certain years, and some places never seem to host turkeys. That's why pre-season scouting is so important.
TOP 10 COUNTIES
While perusing the kill per square mile figures, I thought it might be illustrative to take a look at the top 10 harvest counties, in order to see how many made both lists. The 2012 top ten counties by total kill are as follows: Bedford (493), Pittsylvania (425), Halifax (378), Franklin (375), Southampton (368), Scott (298), Surry (265), Grayson (253), and Westmoreland (246).
In short, only two counties made both the square mile and overall harvest lists: Bedford and Westmoreland. Westmoreland was the 10th best county in terms of kill, but the best in the state in terms of the square mile index. Bedford was the leading county in terms of numbers, but ninth in the square mile configuration. Both of these domains would be superb destinations this spring.
Hunters always want to know where their home counties ranked in the top 10 harvest tallies. But, in my opinion, the top 10 harvest chart is not the relevant ranking — the kill per square mile one is. The counties that make the top ten list often do so only because they are large in size.
For example, Pittsylvania came in second in the harvest, but according to the square mile data is a Tier 3 county with a 0.68 figure. That figure is a very respectable one, but also one that is lower than several dozen other Virginia counties. Pittsylvania County is a very large county and it has a solid turkey contingent, but it is not an other-worldly place to turkey hunt, despite what the turkey harvest figures say.
One of the most important factors regarding spring gobbler hunting is poult production. Gary Norman weighs in on this topic.
"We've recently changed brood survey methods and it will take some time to develop a new baseline for annual comparisons," he said. "Based on anecdotal reports I received during the summer of 2012, reproduction looked good.
"Our early spring weather in 2012 made for a reproductive season that many believe was two weeks ahead of schedule. June and July had some significant storm events, which could have resulted in some poult losses. On the positive side, temperatures during the spring storms were generally mild. Wet and cold factors are generally not a problem individually, but when combined brood losses can reach 50 percent."
In 2011, poult production was generally regarded as being above normal, which should mean good numbers of 2-year-olds in many areas. Again, to emphasize this point, all reproduction is local.
PUBLIC LAND DESTINATIONS
As all the harvest figures indicate, the Tidewater region hosts the most turkeys, so some public lands in this part of the state should be looked at first. One of the newest state public lands is the Big Woods WMA (2,208 acres) in Sussex County. The VDGIF only has the kill per square mile figure on a county-wide basis, but Sussex is rated a Tier 2 domain with a very respectable figure of 0.80. What's more, turkey numbers there are on the upswing.
Another new Tidewater public land is the Cavalier WMA (3,800 acres) in the city of Chesapeake. Chesapeake only has a ratio of 0.22, but turkey numbers have greatly increased in recent years. If I lived in this part of the state, I would definitely do some pre-season scouting on this WMA.
The Southern Piedmont is another region red hot for turkeys right now, and a relatively new public land exists there, the Featherfin WMA (2,800 acres) in Prince Edward, Appomattox, and Buckingham counties. The first two countiess have square mile figures of 0.62 and 0.59, respectively, the latter only 0.33. Featherfin features an almost ideal mix of woodlands, fields, and streams, so this is another WMA worth visiting during the scouting season.
Of course, the predominant public land in the mountains is the 1.7 million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. Since turkey populations vary wildly by county, perspective national forest hunters simply must scout individual parcels they may want to hunt this spring.
I can hardly wait for opening day of our spring gobbler season. I'm betting many of you feel the same way.